SEC Media Days Storylines
By Matt Smith
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With SEC Media Days set to start up tomorrow in Hoover, Alabama, the eyes of the nation are sure to be on the country's premiere football conference.
The unofficial start of the college football season happens on Tuesday in Hoover, Ala., when SEC Media Days open a two-week stretch of conference kickoff events leading up to the start of fall camp in early August. The gathering at the Wynfrey Hotel just outside of Birmingham has become a bit of a circus, with dozens of sports talk radio stations lining “Radio Row” and upwards of 1,000 media members milling around the facility throughout the week.
SEC Commissioner Mike Slive will give his annual address prior to the players and coaches taking the podium. To say the landscape of both the league and college football as a whole has changed since last year’s SEC Media Days is a huge understatement. Miami and Penn State were scandal-free. Texas A&M had supposedly made peace with its Big 12 brethren. The thought of two teams from the same conference playing in the BCS Championship Game seemed unrealistic.
It’s been a tumultuous year, but alas, we stand less than seven weeks from the start of actual football, a day that becomes more and more refreshing with each passing year after offseasons full of arrests, television contracts, expansion, and an overall feel of disharmony. Let’s look at the some of the major storylines that will generate discussion during SEC Media Days.
1. The Zen of Slive
It must have been difficult for Slive not to say “I told you so” during the recent playoff discussions that ultimately resulted in the implementation of a four-team playoff similar to the one Slive had proposed four years earlier that his contemporaries shot down. There is no more powerful man in college athletics than Slive, and with the SEC holding media days before any other league, he’ll be the first commissioner to speak.
Last year, Slive called for scholarship reforms to allow for four-year scholarships rather than renewable one-year scholarships. It sparked a firestorm around the country that ultimately resulted in many schools in the league moving towards four-year scholarships.
What will the commissioner offer up on Tuesday? Will he address many of the unanswered questions regarding the coming playoff and revised bowl selection process? What about his call for the return of partial qualifiers? Regardless of what it is, it won’t be something that is simply glossed over. Slive’s credibility has never been greater.
2. The Missing Stars
Plenty of big names will be rolling through the Wynfrey Hotel this week, but many other notable players won’t be making the trip. Those include Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu, BCS Championship Game MVP A.J. McCarron, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore. Technically, none of the four are seniors, giving their respective coaches an easy out for not bringing them to Birmingham. However, this isn’t simply a situation where seniors are being rewarded for their time spent in the program. These are calculated decisions by the coaches to keep their star players out of the spotlight.
Mathieu and McCarron engaged in a bit of a Twitter war last month, and the former just last week declared himself the best player in college football (he’s probably right). Nick Saban has always preached “one voice” for his program (his own), and keeping McCarron at home ensures the focus will be squarely on the head coach. Credit Les Miles, however, for at least bringing starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger despite not having yet taken a meaningful snap at LSU.
The absence of Murray and Lattimore are head-scratchers. Yes, Murray was at last year’s event, but in a program that has faced much attrition over the past few seasons, Murray has remained the face of the team for over two years. While Lattimore surely would have to answer numerous questions about his recovery from last October’s torn ACL, he’s arguably the most talented player in the league. To put it as simply as possible, Murray and Lattimore need to be in Birmingham.
3. The New Guys
At the SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Fla., new Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin frequently referred to himself as the “new guy”. While he is new to the Aggies, he won’t be the only “new guy” in Birmingham. Missouri’s Gary Pinkel, after 11 seasons in the Big 12, will be attending his first SEC Media Days, as will new Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze and recently-appointed Arkansas boss John L. Smith. While all four men have experience with conference media days in other leagues, they’ve never experienced anything like they’ll witness this week.
Sumlin and Pinkel will face questions about the teams’ respective quarterback situations as well as the atmospheres at Kyle Field and Faurot Field for the programs’ SEC openers on Sept. 8 against Florida and Georgia, respectively. Sumlin has embraced the spotlight in his short time in College Station, taking to Twitter to “announce” verbal commitments with a standard “YESSIR”. Pinkel will likely remain coy about the status of quarterback James Franklin, who underwent shoulder surgery in April.
Freeze and Smith walk into completely opposite situations. Anything more than four wins would be considered a miracle for Freeze, as the Rebels face one of the most difficult schedules in the country with little depth and a lack of an established quarterback. Arkansas was a national title contender before the firing of Bobby Petrino in April, but expectations are still high for Smith. Anything less than 10 wins will be considered a major disappointment for a team with a great quarterback in Tyler Wilson and home games against Alabama and LSU.
4. The Familiar Faces
Steve Spurrier will be attending his 20th SEC Media Days, while it will be No. 12 for Mark Richt, No. 11 for Saban and No. 8 for Miles. In what is certainly not a coincidence, the three most quoted coaches in the league, Miles, Saban and Spurrier, all will speak on separate days.
Spurrier has admitted that his Gamecocks will be a very good team, but much of the focus will be on his junior quarterback, Connor Shaw. Nobody pushes his quarterbacks harder than Spurrier, and the Ol’ Ball Coach will certainly offer some critique of his signal-caller that will add fuel to Shaw’s fire. The best news for Spurrier? Stephen Garcia is in the Canadian Football League.
Saban and Miles both will face questions of how their teams will put last season behind them. Despite a preseason No. 1 ranking off of the team’s last national championship in 2009, Alabama lost three games. Will Saban do anything differently with this year’s defending national champions to avoid a similar result? Miles has been frequently chastised during his time in Baton Rouge, but never more so than after the Tigers’ dismal performance in the BCS Championship Game. While once again a bona fide national title contender, the demons of the 21-0 loss to Alabama could linger.
Richt’s seat is much cooler than it was at this time last year, as a 10-game winning streak and a division title silenced the calls for his job after a 14-12 record in 2009 and 2010. Expect the team’s off-field issues to be the primary topic during Richt’s media session, coming just two weeks after starting running back Isaiah Crowell was dismissed. Sadly, the focus this week won’t be limited to how the most talented team he’s had in Athens will fare on the field.